Having thoroughly explored the historic architecture in Dunnellon’s Historic Boomtown District, I turned my attention to natural attractions during my second day in this north central Florida town. As home to Rainbow Springs, Florida’s fourth largest natural spring which disgorges 416 million gallons of water each day, and the meeting place for the Withlacoochee and Rainbow Rivers, Dunnellon easily lives up to its claim of being the “Treasure of Florida’s Nature Coast.” The local rivers are so famous for their large mouth bass that the State officially calls Dunnellon the bass capitol of the world, and fishermen also pull sunfish, bream, longnose gar, shad, and crappie from these waters as well. For those who prefer saltwater fishing, the Gulf of Mexico is only a short distance away by car, or by boat via the Withlacoochee.
Not being a fisherman, I decided to investigate Rainbow Springs State Park, the site of the headwaters of the Rainbow River just ten miles north of town. This spring became popular in the late 1880’s when hard rock phosphate was discovered in the area and by the 1930’s it had been developed as a tourist attraction. Sea walls, a lodge, a gift shop, and a reptile exhibit were built and tailings from the nearby phosphate mining operation were used to construct miles of nature trails, scenic gardens, and three waterfalls, one of which is still Florida’s highest man-made waterfall. In the 1960’s, Sperry and Hutchinson Corporation (S & H Green Stamps) purchased the spring and turned it into a popular theme park, dredging the river in order to offer glass-bottomed boat rides, riverboat rides, a log raft ride, and submarine boat tours. S & H also added a zoo, a monorail with leaf-shaped gondolas, and an on-site rodeo.
The theme park’s heyday was short lived, however. In the early 1970’s, Interstate 75 was built 30 miles east of Dunnellon, diverting traffic from U.S. Rt. 41 and forcing closure of the park. Thankfully, the U.S. Department of the Interior stepped in, designating Rainbow River as a National Historic Landmark. Determined not to let this natural treasure wither, in 1984 volunteers began clearing the overgrown lands, restoring the pathways, and with the help of the Village of Rainbow Springs Garden Club, planting azaleas, magnolias, and a variety of other native plants. Constant lobbying on the part of the volunteer organizations finally convinced the State of Florida to purchase the original area that was the Rainbow Springs Attraction in 1990. The park was opened to the public on weekends in 1993 and on a full time basis two years later.
Today miles of nature trails wind up sand hills, past waterfalls, and through native gardens that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. In the springtime, pink, purple, and white Azaleas burst into bloom, perfectly framing the crystal clear turquoise waters of the headspring. Visitors can swim year-round in the constant 72 degree waters of the spring or tube the length of the 5.6 mile river during the summer months. The park is especially popular with birders, as Osprey, hawks, and swallowtail kites soar overhead, while water birds – waders, dabblers and divers – are easily spotted along the river.
The park offers a variety of programs, including guided walks, snorkeling expeditions, and canoe trips, or visitors can rent a kayak or canoe and explore on their own. Best of all, admission is only $1.
On the way back to town I stopped briefly at KP Hole County Park, located a short distance downstream from the headspring. This park also offers swimming, beach, picnic and grill facilities, playground, volleyball nets, a concession stand, and restrooms, as well as canoe and tube rentals. Although the entrance fee is $3, canoes and kayaks can be rented for $8 per hour here, as opposed to $10 per hour at Rainbow Springs State Park.
Back in town I hunted down the city beach, which I’d heard was located at the precise spot where the crystal clear Rainbow River empties into the muddy Withlacoochee. I found it tucked away on a side street behind the Chamber of Commerce and spread a blanket on the grassy shore, happy to rest after several hours of hiking and exploration. Some time later splashing sounds roused me from my nap. As I sat up to watch the toddlers playing on the tiny sand beach, a sign caught my eye. Well, two signs actually, mounted on top of one another. The first read; “Beware of Alligators,” giving me pause. But the second: “Do Not Feed the Alligators,” was simply alarming, as it implied that alligators crawl up on shore to be fed – on the very shore where I had been, just moments ago, sleeping. I wandered over to the family happily splashing in the roped off swimming area and asked if alligators ever came near the beach.
“Nah, they stay over there,” the woman said, pointing in the general direction of my blanket. “But they’re not a problem, as long as you don’t feed them.”
“Unless they’re hungry,” I thought.
With it’s carefully preserved Old Florida character, gracious residents, unmatched hospitality, spectacular rivers, springs, fishing, hiking, biking, and birding, Dunnellon is a near perfect Florida vacation destination. Now if they could just get rid of the alligators….
Next: I travel to Homosassa Springs and Old Homosassa. Stay tuned!